Friday 13 November 2020

Review: Cousin Phillis, Elizabeth Gaskell (1864)

After months of blog posts dedicated to Neo-Victorian fiction and the publication of my debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress, I’m back with a review of an actual nineteenth-century novel, Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1864 Cousin Phillis.

This short and sweet work of Victorian realism ends abruptly (it was published in four parts, and Gaskell had apparently planned for parts five and six), but is otherwise a shining example of nineteenth-century domestic storytelling. The novel would make a great addition to student essays on Gaskell’s better-known works.

The plot is simple and undramatic. Engineer Edward Holdsworth meets Phillis Holman, the much-loved only daughter of a clergyman/farmer and his wife. But, while the young man is taken with her beauty, goodness and intelligence, he’s careless with her heart. 

More interesting is the perspective Gaskell chooses to tell the story from. Paul Manning, Phillis’s cousin and Holdsworth’s subordinate at the railway company, is our primary narrator. 

Paul’s own emotional life is never centred. He’s briefly attracted to Phillis, but soon sees her as a sister, since she is a couple of inches taller than him and better at reading Latin (!). When he meets the woman who will be his wife, he only dedicates one sentence to this momentous event. 

Paul struck me as something of a nineteenth-century Nick Carraway. And Gaskell’s skill is apparent in how she develops his character to make this short work into a bildungsroman through the lightest of touches. Paul’s error in repeating Holdsworth’s idle talk to Phillis is believable, naïve, and achingly human. The book may be quiet compared to the high drama of, say, Mary Barton (1848), but that doesn’t that its characters feel any less.

I’d love to watch the TV adaptation from 1982, but so far haven’t found anywhere to stream this particular costume drama online. 

Overall, if you love mid-nineteenth-century prose, Cousin Phillis is a worthwhile investment, even if, unlike for the century’s more famous unfinished novels, modern writers aren’t flocking to anticipate what Mrs Gaskell’s ending might have been.

Do you have a suggestion for which Victorian novel I should read, review or write about next? Let know here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. And if you want updates on my writing and my own novel Bronte’s Mistress, sign up to my email newsletter below. 

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